Olympic Games: Fun before the Games

Dave Hadfield reports from Sydney on the rows besetting the build- up
THEY NOW know which Australian will open the Olympic Games in Sydney next September, but not which Australians will be there to see them.

One controversy surrounding the Millennium Games was defused last week when the Prime Minister, John Howard, announced that he was standing down in favour of the Governor General, Sir William Deane, for the starring role at the opening ceremony.

They have little doubt in Australia that Howard, with the next election in his sights, wanted the job, but public outcry gave him little choice. Those annoyed by his role in the referendum vote that decided to stick with the monarchy argued that, having campaigned to keep the Queen, it would be unacceptable for him to supplant her representative - the Duke of Edinburgh did the honours at Melbourne in 1956 - at the opening on 15 September.

But that still leaves the scandal of the ticketing arrangements largely unresolved. Having sold the Games to the nation on the basis that the ordinary Australian would be first in the queue for seats at the events, the government and organisers have been accused of creaming off too many of the best seats for VIPs and corporate customers.

"It was probably always going to be that way, like it has been at other Games," said one insider this week. "The trouble was that we gave the impression it was going to be different this time. Since that, we've been victims of our own success, because of the demand for tickets."

The organisers have been forced to produce extra tickets for public sale like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat. But if the whole affair has disillusioned Sydneysiders over the egalitarian credentials of the Games, it has done nothing to dampen their enthusiasm for watching them. As well as the obvious athletics, swimming and basketball finals being sold out long ago, less mainstream disciplines like rowing and kayaking are also over-subscribed.

The preparations for the Games have been a highly visible phenomenon, with the main stadiums rising from the wasteland that was the suburb of Homebush. Test events have also kept the profile high. This weekend sees Australia play Brazil at football in Stadium Australia, while a couple of hundred yards away, Australia also play in the semi-finals of baseball's Inter Continental Cup.

The only facilities that remain to be completed at Olympic Park are the tennis arena and the main press centre. Visiting media are promised the biggest and most convenient working area the Olympic Games have seen. Some might be rather less impressed to know that their accommodation is normally used for housing the livestock at the Royal Easter Show.

The joke in town is that the cattle sheds will no longer need to be hosed down once a day - twice a day should be adequate. But the Olympics cannot get away from controversy. Take the relatively laid-back sport of beach volleyball. The blueprint for next September shows the construction of a 10,000-seater stadium, which virtually splits Bondi Beach in two.

They are up in arms in the seaside suburb. You can get away with a lot, as the organisers have already proved with their ticketing fiasco, but you must not deface an Australian icon.